Destiny has taken over this MP’s life.
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A date with Destiny: Tom Watson on the best and worst games of 2014

Tom Watson sits through the best and worst video games so you don’t have to.

Video games are fast becoming an unaffordable luxury. If Ed Miliband ever needs a new angle on the “cost-of-living crisis”, he could lead a fair-pricing campaign. He’d be on to an election winner, given that over half of the nation now plays games regularly.

New instalments of franchises dominated the store shelves this year, among them Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – Day Zero Edition, set in the “plausible future” of a world dominated by private military corporations and full of hi-tech weapons. Throw in the price of the game and season pass add-ons and you won’t get much change from £80. Is this value for money? Millions of gamers still think so. I know people who book time off work to play through the whole Call of Duty story in one go.

The big disappointment of the year was Watch Dogs. I believed the hype – this would be like the Grand Theft Auto series with simulated computer-hacking. How foolish I was to jump straight in without reading the reviews! That’s the trouble with buying from a console’s online store. If the game is pap, you can’t take it back to the shop and sell it second-hand to recoup your losses.

Watch Dogs has so many complex side missions and obligatory tasks that it becomes dull; it’s humourlessly derivative of the open world of Grand Theft Auto V. There’s a reason why more than 33 million copies have been sold so far – it’s funny and exciting. Rockstar Games has recently released an updated version for the PS4 and Xbox One that is worth every penny. The attention to detail is impressive, with significantly improved landscapes and new weapons and vehicles. The developers have even added 100 new tracks for the in-car radios.

Titanfall, which was expected to surpass the global leader Call of Duty, was a disappointment. As it was developed by the team behind the original Call of Duty, it had instant loyalty sales. The mechanics allow you to “double-jump” around the landscape and are lovely but the game is devoid of a decent plot. The combat challenges are dull and repetitive. People paid for it, played it for two weeks, then left it completely.

There are, however, some beautiful games in the £20-£40 price range. My choice of the year is Infamous Second Son. It was the first game to show off the souped-up processing power of the new PS4 console. The hero, Delsin, chases his opponents around Seattle and can blow things up with pixel-perfect precision. This game was exclusive to the PS4 and justified my choice to upgrade from the Xbox 360.

The big surprise of the year was Wolfenstein: the New Order. It’s part of the ultimate franchise – the 1992 game was the earliest major first-person shooter. You play William “B J” Blazkowicz, who emerges from a vegetative state in the 1960s to find that the Nazis won the war. The format is so old it doesn’t even have online game play – an impediment in the broadband age. Yet stunning graphics and smooth game mechanics, combined with a gory, humorous plot, produce a memorable game that fully warrants an 18 classification. Keith Vaz missed a trick this year by forgetting to condemn it in the pages of the Daily Mail. If the makers, Bethesda Softworks, can modernise this old classic, we should be in for a treat when they publish a new version of Doom in 2015.

Despite mixed reviews, one game has taken over my life. While Destiny offers little you would consider groundbreaking for a product that reportedly cost £300m to make, it combines a series of game genres into a hugely compelling experience. Bungie, which created Halo, has plundered the best bits of other successful franchises to create an awesome game. Destiny has online play as good as Call of Duty, weaponry as satisfying as Wolfenstein and a touch of the “massively multi-player” feel of World of Warcraft. It’s so good that I broke a golden rule and purchased headphones to assist in online team play. Playing in a team to defeat a larger foe should be completely normal for a socialist MP, yet the sense of inadequacy when you’ve let the side down is huge. Being bettered by younger and more able colleagues is what I play video games to escape from. Plus ça change.

During the recent supposed coup against Ed Miliband, I was planning the downfall of Atheon, the final boss in the “Vault of Glass” raid in Destiny, with a trade union official from Manchester and an English language student from Rome. It’s this experience that has led me to form the view that crime is dropping thanks to video games. If Ed wants an easier life in 2015, maybe he should buy John Mann and Simon Danczuk a PS4 this Christmas. 

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East (Labour)

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.